This is a story about two writers. Writers whose works couldn't be any more different, but whose recent forays into publishing signify a drastic sea change in the way books are acquired and published, both by independent authors and traditional publishers.
I first heard of Alan Sepinwall a few years back when he was a guest on Bill Simmons's podcast, "The B.S. Report" (I interviewed Simmons when his last book was released). Sepinwall was a film critic, at the time with the Newark Star-Ledger, and I enjoyed Sepinwall and Simmons going back and forth on their favorite shows, with the insight of knowledgable critics but the passion of fans. I especially liked that Sepinwall was a fan of "The Shield," probably my favorite drama of the last decade, and his guest stints on Simmons's show led me to his columns. Nowadays whenever I watch one of my regular shows, I immediately go to Twitter for the link to Sepinwall's column, which goes up minutes after the program ends. When I saw from Sepinwall's Twitter feed that he was publishing a book, I knew I'd be buying it and wondered who the lucky publisher was. I was shocked to say the least to find out he had self-published it.
I first heard of Hugh Howey a few months ago. I was out with a couple friends one night, and one friend who works in television and is a voracious reader whose tastes are similar to my own (and for some unknown reason had brought his Kindle to the bar) mentioned a science fiction work he'd read and loved. It was called Wool, the author was Hugh Howey, whom I hadn't heard of previously. I went home and did a little research on Howey. It turned out that Wool was actually a self-published book that Howey had published as a short story on Amazon's KDP. He later added more entries to as the Wool series as it began to pick up steam and popularity. Generally I'm apprehensive about buying self-published books, mainly because there isn't much, if any, quality control, the caveat being writers I've read before who have chosen to go the self-pub;ishing route due to issues with their publisher or declining sales. I took a chance on Wool, however, and found myself engrossed. It struck me that Howey had not received a deal from a traditional publisher considering the strong sales and reviews, until learning he had not gone with a traditional U.S. publisher by choice. Yet.
Alan Sepinwall's first book The Revolution Was Televised, looks at 12 very different shows that, in his opinion, ushered in a new 'golden age of television', changed the way t.v. shows are made and the way critics write about them. (those shows are: The Sopranos, Oz, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad.) Sepinwall, like Howey, chose to self-publish his book. Despite this, Sepinwall's book has received tremendous mainstream attention, including reviews in TIME, The New Yorker, and to the best of my knowledge the very first New York Times review of a self-published book (by Michiko Kakutani, no less). Sepinwall has admitted that he did pitch his book to publishers about a year and a half ago, with little interest. The self-publishing route allowed him to tinker with the book almost to the day of publication, including the most recent episodes and developments in the current television seasons (which would have been impossible given the long lead time of traditional publishers).
For months, as Howey's WOOL series gained traction, including numerous foreign rights sales and a film sale to 20th Century Fox, Howey and his literary agent Kristen Nelson did not sell print (or any other) rights to a U.S. publisher. This changed on Wednesday, when it was announced that Simon & Schuster had bought print rights to Wool from Nelson--but in a development unheard of, they left ebook rights with the author. Other self-published phenoms have eventually sold their books to traditonal publishers, but authors like Amanda Hocking, the first self-published million-copy Kindle seller, sold both print and digital (in her case, to St. Martin's Press).
Howey's Wool Omnibus currently sits at #137 in the Kindle Store.
The self-published print edition of Sepinwall's The Revolution Was Televised is #302 on Amazon. The ebook is currently #1,009 in the Kindle Store. Both are incredibly strong numbers for books without a large corporation or dedicated publicity team behind them. And though I'm usually loathe to use a book's Amazon ranking as a completely accurate barometer of its commercial success, with these books it is the only barometer, as neither work is available in conventional bookstores.
These two publishing stories are harbingers of how the industry will change in the years to come. In Sepinwall's case, an author with a built-in platform (a popular column and webite, over 50,000 Twitter followers), was able to publish a book that was more immediate than a traditional publisher's schedule would have allowed. In his case, the self-publishing mechanism itself was also publicity angle, and was mentioned during nearly every one of his interviews. There was a 'me against the world' mentality that, even if not championed by Sepinwall himself, was certainly supported by his fans who were eager to prove that this book was more than worthy of publication and praise.
In Howey's case, an author who didn't 'need' traditional publishing because his book had already gained a large audience in digital, realized he could expand that readership via brick-and-mortar stores. He was able to hold out until a publisher offered him an uncommon deal, taking print rights alone and leaving digital for the author. He could keep building his audience in ebook, while exposing himself to another readership who would not have heard about him online. The Wool omnibus is currently just $5.99 in ebook, and it remains to be seen whether Simon & Schuster will ask Howey to raise the price so as to not undercut their print edition. (note: I contacted Howey for this article, and though he as extremely cordial, he preferred to hold off going on the record until closer to publication date) Offering Howey this kind of deal shows that publishers, long considered as opponents of change, have become much more progressive. Sepinwall's case shows that authors with a built-in platform and direct communication to his/her readers will be able to forgo the traditional system, especially when it would necessitate turning in a book that would not be timely, for an audience that expects literally current day anaylsis. The 'One Size Fits' all attitude is dead--both for publishers and authors--and yet it has openedup a new world of possibilities for both.
Jason Pinter is the bestselling author of five thrillers (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), as well as the ebook exclusive FAKING LIFE, which have nearly 1.5 million copies in print in nearly 20 countries. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, was published in November 2011. Visit him at www.jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.